Thursday, October 01, 2009

Spreading Ignorance, One Broadcast At A Time

In the midst of one of his spasms of free association about health care, TARP, General Motors, and Kin Jong-il, Rush Limbaugh compressed four decades of urban deterioration into one entertaining paragraph. He ranted:

I don't care where you go, whatever they call themselves, progressives -- go to Detroit -- what do you see in Detroit? Abject poverty. What do you see in most of Michigan? Abject poverty. What do you see where liberal Democrat socialists anywhere in the world have total unchecked power to run things, be it a country or be it a city or be it a state? You see abject poverty. Marxism, socialism, create poverty. I know it's hard to believe that this is somebody's design. But it is.

He then went on to blame this on Barack Obama, having blamed a moment earlier the nation's ills on Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and unions, who "are scheming against the American people, as they have been all along."

If you're reading this blog- not just this post, but this blog at any time- you're interested enough to have heard along the way some of the explanations for the decades-long urban decay in the U.S.A. In the recent past, political corruption (of which Detroit has had its share), drug (including alchohol) use, street crime, poverty, poor education, and more.

There are deeper causes of the ills of urban America. Cities were flourishing when, according to Bradford Snell, president and general manager Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors had other ideas:

In 1922, according to GM's own files, Sloan established a special unit within the corporation which was charged, among other things, with the task of replacing America's electric railways with cars, trucks and buses.

A year earlier, in 1921, GM lost $65 million, leading Sloan to conclude that the auto market was saturated, that those who desired cars already owned them, and that the only way to increase GM's sales and restore its profitability was by eliminating its principal rival: electric railways.

At the time, 90 percent of all trips were by rail, chiefly electric rail; only one in 10 Americans owned an automobile. There were 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways, a thriving and profitable industry with 44,000 miles of track, 300,000 employees, 15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income. Virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system.

General Motors sought to reduce competition from electric railways through a variety of measures, including the use of freight leverage. GM, for decades, was the nation's largest shipper of freight over railroads, which controlled some of America's most extensive railways. By wielding freight traffic as a club, GM persuaded railroads to abandon their electric rail subsidiaries.

With a pack of notorious mobsters, GM helped purchase and scrap the street railways serving Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Members of GM's special unit went to, among others, the Southern Pacific, owner of Los Angeles' Pacific Electric, the world's largest interurban, with 1,500 miles of track, reaching 75 miles from San Bernardino, north to San Fernando, and south to Santa Ana; the New York Central, owner of the New York State Railways, 600 miles of street railways and interurban lines in upstate New York; and the New Haven, owner of 1,500 miles of trolley lines in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

In each case, by threatening to divert lucrative automobile freight to rival carriers, they persuaded the railroad (according to GM's own files) to convert its electric street cars to motor buses -- slow, cramped, foul-smelling vehicles whose inferior performance invariable (sic) led riders to purchase automobiles.

A few decades later, President Dwight Eisenhower would launch the interstate highway system, enabling the middle class to flee cities for more pastoral areas. This increased competition for the limited number of jobs in urban America. And the white middle class, lured to the suburbs by the mortage interest tax deduction, was encouraged to flee by private actors aiming to maximize income and only inadvertently helping destroy the city. Wendell Cox (pdf), who (over-) emphasizes the impact of urban renewal, attributes the description of the process to a W. Edward Orser, who explained

First, real estate operators would try to find a house for sale on an all-white block, often specifically alluding to the prospect of potential racial change in the area and to the threat of lowered property values for those not wise enough to see the handwriting on the wall. As an inducement to sell, the agent typically offered a buying price at or above the current market value. Second, having secured the first house by such means, he quickly installed a new African-American tenant in the house --- renter or buyer … Third, as soon as the new tenant had taken up residence, if not sooner, the operator moved on down the block, alerting homeowners to the initial sale, warning them of the prospect of increased African-American settlement and offering to buy their houses as well. Those who were among the first to sell might be offered prices above the market value; the next several sales might approximate the actual worth of the house; those who sold later suffered a considerable loss.

Not surprisingly, this tactic had a destructive influence on racial harmony as most homeowners suffered a financial loss and tensions among homeowners, and between races, suffered.

The decline in the nation's manufacturing base, particularly devastating in the early years to cities (now harming entire metropolitan areas) has been facilitated by outsourcing of jobs to the private sector, offshoring of jobs abroad, the euphemistically termed "free trade," and favorable tax treatment of corporations which engage in one or more of the above.

This decline, reflected in the near-dissolution of the domestic auto industry (before President Obama and the Democratic Congress recently revived it), is particularly obvious in Detroit, Michigan. Powerful demographic trends have played a role for generations,as Time Magazine, talking about the African-American migration northward, pointed out on October 27, 1961:

With little education or training, Detroit's new arrivals have had to scramble for any job they could get. But in their desperation to find work at any wage, they have crowded out thousands of the city's longtime residents; more than 70% of the 61,692 persons on relief have lived in Detroit since before 1950.

Disagree if you will, about the role of General Motors, the real estate business, white flight, or the federal government, but the deterioration of the American city was not precipitated by "liberal Democrat Socialists." This much is obvious.

The operative term is obvious. Obvious to anyone interested in public policy. Obvious to you, to me, and to Rush Limbaugh.

It is incomprehensible that Rush Limbaugh would be completely oblivious to all of these factors. Incomprehensible. Rush is not ignorant- merely manipulative and dishonest and completely contemptous of his listeners, given that he expects most of them to believe what he's selling.

There really are facts supporting the conservative worldview. There must be. But apparently the right-wing talkies believe conservatism cannot survive absent an atmosphere of ignorance. Their listeners, and American society, only suffer as a consequence.

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